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Mixed Feelings

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Mixed-use development in Raleigh is all the rage, if not the reality, and Exhibit A is Glenwood South. (Perhaps that's because there s no Exhibit B?) Since I'm there a lot and live three blocks away, I feel a proprietary interest in how it s doing. Some observations:

1. The key to Glenwood South is--you knew this already--location, location, location. GS is not downtown, where the Fayetteville Mall still casts its shadows; rather, it's on the western edge of downtown, so it's easily accessible to state government, N.C. State University and all the prosperous folks living in close attachment thereto. Mixed-use had to start somewhere. In the future, it should move downtown along Hillsborough Street, connecting the dots.

2. The other key: Glenwood Avenue itself. Between Hillsborough Street and Peace Street, Glenwood is four lanes, sort of. But mostly it's three lanes, or two, with on-street parking on one side or both. Also, in a stretch of little more than half a mile, there are five traffic lights. Result: Traffic moves, but slowly. Pedestrians can cross the street without fear. On the other hand, the sidewalks are terrible.

3. The other, other key: GS is authentic. That is, most of what's there is either the adaptive re-use of an old building or its continuing old use. True, the 42nd Street Oyster Bar, the pioneer among the upscale restaurants, doesn't look a whole lot like it used to. But 518 West Jones Street is a new restaurant in the old brick shell, and the Powerhouse is a CP&L development featuring the original substation lit up as modern art. Neal Coker's 510 Glenwood was built from scratch, but its neighbors include Warren Distributing--an honest-to-goodness warehouse--and a sand-and-gravel pit that borders the rail line. There are a bunch of expensive antique shops and hair salons. But if you need your paint color matched, Askew-Taylor is still open for business up the block.

4. Affordable housing: the biggest question mark. Before there was 510 Glenwood, with medium-sized condos selling for almost $200 a square foot, there was Glenwood Towers, the Raleigh Housing Authority's subsidized apartments for low-income seniors. But other than that, affordability is an endangered species. GS is within walking distance of state government, and there are enough state jobs that don't pay anything that folks might walk over from GS if they could afford to live there in the first place. The more trendy GS is, the more the land costs, the more the buildings lease for, and the more that Bombay martini sells for ($7.50 at the Rhino Club). The steaks at Sullivan's? Don't ask. The same thing will happen with housing unless the city insists that affordable units be part of the mix. Take Andy Sandman's project a little west and north of Glenwood Towers. He wants to build 87 condos on one acre, which is more than a gracious plenty. Would any be, uh, affordable? Nope. All luxury units.

5. Size matters: I can imagine, at some future time, that Raleigh will again have a trolley, or a tram, or some means of regular public conveyance along Hillsborough Street and Glenwood Avenue and on downtown and around town. When that day comes, families will again need just one car, or no car. Until then, however, we're all driving and parking, driving and parking, and so the fundamental problem of development, mixed-use or otherwise, continues to be driving and parking.

That's why scale is a critical element in any development plan, mixed-use or otherwise. Yes, we want dense development--the most out of each acre--lest we sprawl to death. But let one developer put too much of anything--housing, stores, offices--on his bit of the land, and pretty soon his neighbors will want to do the same. Actually, if they're developers, they'll want just a little more than he got. And then their neighbors will want a little more than that. And so on, until there are so many cars jamming the lots and clogging the roads that you're faced with a Hobson's choice: Widen the roads, and kill off the pedestrians; or don't widen them, and shortchange the remaining property owners who didn't put their hands out fast enough.

So far, knock on wood; the scale of development in Glenwood South is sustainable. Coker's 510 Glenwood is the big dog at six stories, but it's at the low point on the avenue, and he put up a four-level parking deck behind it, which helps in the overall scheme of things. Otherwise, the new buildings are all mid-rise.

6. Future shock: East of Glenwood is the railroad track that the Triangle Transit Authority will use for its commuter rail service. So within a decade folks may be getting off the train from Durham in the morning and walking to work in a state government office ... then returning to Durham at day's end ... but not before stopping at the Rhino to unwind after a hard day of over-regulating and such. Soon, though, downtown Raleigh will be nothing but mixed-use development, so why would anyone need to commute from Durham?

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--bob geary

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